Coal is the most abundant fossil fuel source available in the United States, and burning coal supplies approximately 40% of the electric power currently generated in the US. Due to the abundance of coal as a fuel source, cost of electricity from coal has historically been lower than other sources. However, burning coal has a number of significant negative consequences:
Emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrous oxide (NOx), which cause acid rain and contribute to smog. Federal action to control air emissions from all major sources began in earnest with the 1970 Clean Air Act. However, SO2 and NOx emissions began to decline after enactment of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, which established a national cap-and-trade program for SO2 and required other controls for NOx emissions from fossil-fueled electric power plants.
Particulate emissions, such as soot and ash, which cause breathing issues and asthma, and heavy metals emissions, such as mercury, arsenic, and chromium, which have a wide range of health and environmental impacts. The EPA has issued several rules and standards to control particulate pollution that are achievable using existing pollution control technologies.
Large quatities of ash that is left behind after the coal is burned, which must be disposed of or stored. Although there are numerous approaches to managing ash, some are more environmentally friendly than others, and there have been recent serious incidents that have raised public awareness.
Excavation of coal, which has been blamed for destroying the environment and the aesthetics of the countryside, particularly through the practice of mountain top removal.
And, finally, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, which is the primary contributor to global warming. Although the scientific community is virtually unanimous on the correlation between CO2 levels in the atmosphere and global warming, and burning coal emits approximately twice as much CO2 as natural gas for the same heating value, there is strong corporate and political opposition to instituting any such rules. The problem is that there is no technically proven and economic way at this time to reduce carbon dioxide emissions caused by burning fossil fuels.
Although all of these issues can be addressed to the extent that they comply with current rules and regulations, there is a strong and growing movement in the country against coal. Perhaps no other issue is as devisive in the area of energy as use of coal as a source of electricity. And, although clean, renewable souces of power such as wind and solar are growing dramatically and have a great future, reality is that it will be several decades before they will have grown sufficiently to replace coal generated power. In the meantime the challenge is how to best utilitize the power sources available, including coal, to make the transition to cleaner energy sources.
The Coal Power Topics package provides information on a variety of coal power topics of general interest to the American public. Information from a number of sources is provided, including links to videos that have been produced spcifically by Our World of Energy for broadcast television.